Smugglers are bringing migrants to a remote Arizona border crossing, overwhelming US agents

Smugglers are bringing migrants to a remote Arizona border crossing, overwhelming US agents

LUKEVILLE, Ariz.– Gerston Miranda and his wife were among thousands of migrants who recently arrived in this remote area on Arizona's southern border with Mexico. They squeezed their way into the United States through a hole in the wall and walked about 14 miles at night with two school-age daughters. to surrender to Border Police officers.

“There is no security in my country,” says the 28-year-old from Ecuador, who lost his job when his employer closed due to extortion by criminals. “You cannot work without safety. You can't live.”


A shift in smuggling routes has led to an influx of migrants from countries as diverse as Senegal, Bangladesh and China. This has prompted the Border Patrol to seek help from other federal agencies and draw attention to an issue of critical importance in next year's presidential election.

With hundreds of migrants crossing the area daily, the U.S. government on Monday indefinitely closed the nearby international border crossing between Lukeville, Arizona, and Sonoyta, Mexico, to free up Customs and Border Protection officers assigned to the port of entry to assist with transportation and other support. The agency has also partially closed several other border ports in recent months, including a crosswalk in San Diego and a bridge in Eagle Pass, Texas.

Critics of the move, including Democratic Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs; The state's two U.S. senators, the governor of the Mexican state of Sonora and the leadership of the nearby Tohono O'odham Nation, said it could hurt trade and tourism. Hobbs urged President Joe Biden to reassign the 243 National Guard members already in the Tucson sector to help reopen the Lukeville border crossing.

The morning after the shutdown, about a dozen Border Patrol agents in olive green uniforms monitored some 400 migrants who had spent the night near the towering wall of steel bollards, wrapped in shiny Mylar blankets that they later placed among the Saguaro cactus and had discarded Palo Verde trees. .

Three or four times as many CBP field operations officers in navy blue uniforms helped the migrants into white vans for a short ride to an indoor field intake center. From there, agents took the migrants for processing to the Border Patrol's Ajo Station, a half-hour north, or to other locations such as Tucson.

According to Witness at the Border, an advocacy group that analyzes flight data, U.S. authorities in Arizona have been so short-handed that they have used charter flights to transfer some migrants from Tucson to three Texas border cities for processing.

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Federal air marshals who provide security on commercial flights, and even Federal Protective Service officers who guard U.S. government buildings, are being diverted to the border, officials say, without saying exactly where they are going.

“We see a lot of different types of uniforms here,” said Lukeville humanitarian worker Tom Wingo.

Nonprofit organizations are concerned about the well-being of the migrants.

“This is a humanitarian crisis happening in our own backyard,” said Dora Rodriguez, president of the Tucson-based nonprofit Humane Borders, which has water tanks at the border for migrants. “There are hundreds of people, including babies and children, trapped in remote areas of the desert for days.”

The Lukeville area's popularity as a place to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. has become apparent in recent months. It's one of the most high-profile examples of migrants moving to a remote area, leaving Border Patrol hot on their trail. In 2019, Antelope Wells, New Mexico became a popular spot. This year has also seen hundreds of migrants camped in the mountains of Jacumba Hot Springs, California, waiting for agents to process them.

Because Lukeville is so remote, there are few Border Patrol personnel, so traffickers in the region controlled by Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel send people there. Last week's arrivals included 41-year-old Luiz Velazquez, his wife and their three children from Zacatecas, a Mexican state plagued by drug cartel violence.

Heat-related illnesses were a major problem several months ago, when daytime temperatures soared into the triple digits. The concern now is nighttime temperatures in the 40s, in a place where the nearest hospitals and nonprofit migrant shelters are nearly two hours away.

Chris Clem, a retired sector chief from Yuma, Ariz., said it's part of smugglers' strategy to minimize operatives' efforts, which requires closing highway checkpoints and diverting other resources to processing migrants . The remote location puts “tremendous pressure” on Border Patrol, he said.

Art Del Cueto, a Tucson-based vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, said the union wants tougher measures to deter migrants from coming. He said it is not so much a matter of too few officers, but of too many migrants.

Heading into next year's presidential election, the border is a top issue for voters, especially Republicans, and immigration issues could be an issue for Biden, a Democrat, as he runs for re-election.

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A national AP-NORC poll conducted in November found that about half of U.S. adults say increasing security at the U.S.-Mexico border should be a “high priority” for the federal government, with three in ten call it a “moderate priority”. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to call it a high priority.

Biden's approach to immigration combines new legal routes to enter the country with more restrictions on asylum for those who cross the border illegally. Former President Donald Trump, the Republican Party's frontrunner for the 2024 nomination, has promised even tougher immigration policies for a second term.

Additional funding for border security has been held up in Congress over a package to provide additional aid to Israel and Ukraine in their wars against Hamas and Russia.

John Modlin, sector chief for the Border Patrol in Tucson, said Friday that the agency made 18,900 arrests for illegal crossings the week before in the sector that includes most of Arizona's border with Mexico. That translates to a daily average of 2,700 arrests, well above October's daily average of less than 1,800 and just shy of 700 in December 2022.

According to the 2020 census, Lukeville had a population of 35, but the mobile home park where many residents lived now appears abandoned, with boarded-up buildings and a number of old, manufactured homes. A previously busy gas station and store that sold ice cream and snacks to travelers was closed indefinitely Monday.

The Lukeville border crossing is also popular among US residents driving from Arizona to the popular resort of Puerto Peñasco or Rocky Point. Also called “Arizona's Beach,” it is located about 60 miles south of the border on the northern shore of the Sea of ​​Cortez.

Americans who now want to travel to Puerto Peñasco must pass through Nogales, a three-hour drive east, or San Luis, a two-hour drive west.

Alfonso Durazo, the governor of the Mexican state of Sonora, has asked officials of both countries “to undertake all necessary efforts necessary to resume as quickly as possible the extraordinary commercial, tourist and social relationship that have historically distinguished Sonora and Arizona.”

“The solution is not to close border crossings,” Durazo said.


Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Maria Verza in Mexico City and Rebecca Santana and Linley Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.